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We are your community watchdog

Posted: October 11, 2013 9:09 a.m.
Updated: October 14, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Last week was National Newspaper Week, the one week of the year during which -- with the Newspaper Association Managers’ (NAM) leadership -- newspapers remind readers of their importance to their communities. This year, NAM’s theme was “Your Community, Your Newspaper, Your Life,” while the S.C. Press Association (SCPA) narrowed the focus even further to newspapers’ role as community watchdogs.

How do we perform that role here at the C-I? First and foremost, we attend all Camden City, Kershaw County and Elgin Town council meetings. We attend Bethune Town Council meetings when we can or, when we can’t, rely on local citizens to point the way to stories we need to write.

Earlier this year, for example, Bethune Town Council voted to dissolve its police department and stop paying for a town judge. Council said it could no longer afford to do so. A few months later, two of three attending councilmen (there are five council members) voted to hire the mayor’s son as its new police chief. According to residents who contacted us Friday, council voted Thursday night to hire a new judge. Going into executive session to interview the judicial candidate was on the agenda -- voting in public session to hire him was not.

Many from Bethune told us the first time they knew the police department had been dissolved was in the pages of the C-I. They had almost as little notice about hiring the mayor’s son as chief. And remember, council originally said they couldn’t even afford to have a police department.

The C-I is still trying to find out whether or not the mayor -- who, we solidly point out, did recuse himself from voting to hire his son but did not recuse himself from the discussion about it -- violated state ethics laws. We’re not saying there was wrong-doing; we’re trying to find out if there’s a violation. Either way, we’ll stay on the story and report it.

This newspaper has a history of investigating elected officials when we feel the public needs to know about potential conflicts of interest or other problems that may bring into question their fitness to hold office. We’ve also done our best to make sure the public understands exactly what it is a particular council is doing. In 2012, we wrote a number of stories about the county’s solid waste fee, an unsuccessful proposal for a penny sales tax and a noise ordinance.

Even while putting together our first story in 2012 about a proposal to reduce the sheriff’s office to only constitutional duties, we made sure that we accurately reported exactly how that proposal ended up before county council. We learned -- thankfully before publication -- that what we had been told the first time wasn’t exactly what really happened and, therefore, not what we reported.

A lot of what we do centers on open government and freedom of information. One of the things the C-I does is continue to push our public bodies -- from the county and town councils to school and hospital boards -- to make sure they’re as open about things as they should and that they follow the law when they enter executive sessions to discuss things behind closed doors.

For 13 years, I have tried to instruct each of these bodies -- whether as the reporter covering them or as an editor leading our staff -- to follow the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That’s not for the C-I’s sake, but for yours.

In its citizen’s guide to the S.C. FOIA, the SCPA says of closing meetings, or parts of meetings, to the public that such bodies may do so only to discuss:

• the hiring, firing, promotion or discipline of an employee or student;

• contract negotiations, including the sale of property;

• receipt of legal advice -- but points out that having an attorney in the room is not carte blanche to secretly talk about whatever they want;

• security personnel or devices;

• matters that may lead to criminal prosecution; or

• business recruitment or economic development.

The SCPA also says this of how public bodies should go into executive session:

“Before a public body may go into a closed meeting ... it must make a motion in open session, stating the purpose of the closed meeting and identifying the specific exemption that covers the topic. A general reference such as ‘personnel matter’  is not sufficient.” (Emphasis mine.)

Also, no votes may be taken in closed sessions; they must be taken in public. This is counter to at least one practice I have seen in recent months by one particular public body. I hope that group looks a little further into this and gets an independent opinion on whether what they are doing violates the S.C. FOIA.

Again, this is all for  your benefit. Anyone attending these meetings -- not just the press -- have the right to know what its governing bodies are discussing behind closed doors. Let me make it clear: I’m not talking about the details of what’s going to be discussed in closed-door sessions -- we don’t need names or dollar amounts until public votes are taken. However, we all have a right to know what, in more than just general terms, they’re talking about. “A contractual matter involving general surgery” is sufficient, as the KershawHealth Board of Trustees has stated in recent months.

Why is our watchdog role so important? Well it’s not possible for every citizen to attend every meeting of every governing body. We do that for you. We are your eyes and ears and voice.

By fulfilling that role, we ensure that those in government work for you and not themselves -- something that benefits everyone in Kershaw County.

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